“Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”
Only in this new culture of rapid film consumption and instant web response can a film like The Shawshank Redemption rise the ranks of reverence to do war with the listology kings of academic glory.
The Shawshank Redemption introduces us to Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a sharp banker falsely sentenced to two life terms for the double-murder of his wife and her lover. He’s sent to Shawshank State Prison in 1947, where the rules are enforced by “colossal prick” Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown) and made by the corrupt Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), a religious hypocrite.
Andy spends his first two years (unsuccessfully) dodging a gang called the Sisters, led by rapist Bogs (Mark Rolston), who is not even homosexual (“You have to be human first. They don’t qualify”). Throughout the ordeal, Andy confides in Ellis Boyd Redding, known simply as “Red” (Morgan Freeman), a man who knows how to smuggle things inside the prison walls, a “regular Sears Roebuck.”
One day, a fiery young thief, Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows), comes to join them at Shawshank. He claims he once shared a cell with a killer who bragged about killing a banker’s wife and her lover, and laughed at how it was falsely pinned on the banker. Andy brings the story to the attention of the Warden, hoping for his acquittal, but the warden cracks down hard, fearing he’ll be exposed for corruption. At his breaking point, Andy orders a length of rope and decides whether to “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”
My personally favorite dialogue in the movie is the one, delivered by Red, which goes like:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful that it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a great place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
Good narration is hard to pull off without sounding cheesy and overwritten
Shawshank also includes important motifs !!!
Note the series of shots where the camera is positioned inside a dark space looking out:
Remember, it’s Andy who brings “the light of life” into the darkness of the prison, just like the wall demolition. Meanwhile, the Warden’s safe and Andy’s escape hole both contribute to his escape and both are hidden by wall decor (by Andy’s poster and the Warden’s scripture sign). It elevates them to the level of symbolism and purpose.
The opening scene unfolds by gradually giving us pieces of the puzzle — first the Ink Spots’ “If I Didn’t Care” on the radio, then a mansion, then a car, then Andy in a car, then the fact that he is disheveled, then the fact that he has a gun, then the fact that he is drunk. The order of disclosures is really important, as the effect would be totally different if, for example, we saw that he was drunk before seeing the gun.
When Andy enters the prison for the first time, the camera looks directly up at the towering prison above and tilts back more and more, as if one last gasp at daylight.
The most touching and disturbing scene is the Brook’s hanging of himself. The desire and agitation to be back to ‘his’ world, meaning the jail (shawshank) makes us wonder how life takes a toll on man. Where on one hand he was punished by keeping him away from society, towards the end, we see that man himself trying to keep away from society. Reality of the world seemed like a battle for existence. In the jail, he was known and held some worth. Upon being free, he sees himself as a slave at the hands of the brutality that time and age casts upon him.
Even though he escaped the walls, yet he has found himself in a new kind of prison- “Being alone in the real world.”
We first see him carving and wonder what he’s doing. We then see only his feet twitching as a table kicks out from beneath him, and his body hangs limp in a mirror to the left.a powerful axial break that reveals what Brooks was carving, “Brooks was here,” followed by the slow disclosure of his body hanging from a piece of ceiling trim that looks awfully similar to jail bars.
RED: The man’s been in here 50 years, Haywood. Fifty years! That’s all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothing. Just a used up con with arthritis in both hands.
I’m tellin’ ya, these walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on ’em. That’s institutionalized. They send you here for life and that’s exactly what they take.
Music itself becomes a metaphor for the film’s main theme: hope.
The Brooks-Red connection may be the most telling theme in the entire film. It’s no coincidence that the film only allows those two characters to give voiceover narration, as it’s they who represent the choice to “get busy living or get busy dying.” Tied into this is the additional theme of how we each leave a mark on the world, be it the vastly differing marks carved by Brooks and Red, or the huge mark Andy leaves as he carves his own name. What’s going to be your mark? One of cowardice? Or one of hope?
If world politics is your thing, you could say Andy leaves a mark like our greatest leaders, a hard screw who comes into a cold place of corruption and uses his intense knowledge of the system to strike deals with the toughest adversaries and help the least among us.
If religion’s your thing, you could view Andy as a Christ-like figure, garnering disciples.
Not only does Andy leave an overt message in his Bible (“Salvation lie within”), he also disappears from his cell in what’s described as a “miracle,” after which he dives into a cleansing body of water (baptism) and stands with outstretched arms looking toward the heavens. Meanwhile, the Warden, whether you call him a false prophet or a Bible thumper, gets his comeuppance.
“Are you rehabilitated?”
Which brings us to yet another of the film’s themes: rehabilitation. If Shawshank preaches forgiveness with its religious themes, it preaches second chances with its sociological themes. Remember, these characters we love are indeed criminals. Red is an admitted murderer (“The only guilty man at Shawshank”), yet we as viewers come to see his ability to change and root for his release.
‘Hope is the Best of Things’
“A lot of people are in prisons of relationships, of jobs they hate, of lives unfulfilled, and have given up hope,” Robbins said. “And what this movie was saying to them was it might take a while, it might take some time, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And if you have the patience and the belief, you can make it there.”
For all this, Shawshank stands as one of the most thematically rich films of all time. And it doesn’t take much to see that its most powerful theme is that of hope.
As Red says, “A free man at the start of a long journey, whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
At this point, Red has made his decision to “get busy living.” He’s found his redemption and even says the “conclusion is uncertain.”